NHL free agency predictions

July 1st is the most anticipated day in the hockey world; free agency opens. This day can improve your team or completely screw up your salary cap situation for the foreseeable future. There are franchise names set for unrestricted free agency and top young talent ready for their first big boy contracts. Let’s take a look at my top 10 free agents, as well as potential trades (Ages listed as of July 1, 2019).

Trades

NIKITA ZAITSEV (Tor) to the DALLAS STARS

The Maple Leafs, to no one’s surprise, have a tricky cap situation on their hands. Kyle Dubas was thought to have lost the William Nylander negotiations, signing the then 22-year-old Swedish winger to a 6yr/$45M deal with an AAV of $6.962M per year. Not a bad deal after a breakout 61 point season in 2017-18. However, the Leafs are making it clear that Nylander will not be traded. The next names on Dubas’ list have come out as requested trades from Toronto, making his job somewhat easier. Patrick Marleau (39) has requested a “mutual parting of ways” after suffering a sharp decline in production over his two-year stint in Toronto. The more intriguing piece, however, is Nikita Zaitsev (who is a forward playing defense according to Don Cherry). After coming over from the KHL, Naitsev impressed during his rookie year, recording 36 points in 2016-17. He was rewarded for his play with a 7yr/$31.5M deal, carrying a $4.5M cap hit per season. Zaitsev’s play after signing the deal has declined. Maple Leafs boss, Mike Babcock, has misused him, however. The Russian D-man is more suited to a more offensive game, rather than a defensive one. Putting Zaitsev in this shutdown role exposed his flaws defensively. His skills offensively are very solid; he skates well, moves the puck fairly well, and has solid vision. Vancouver, Tampa, and New Jersey have shown interest in Zaitsev but, the team that could use his presence on the back end the most is Dallas. The Stars have a very solid Top-4 developing, led by Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg. Dallas could solidify their Top-4 by acquiring the Russian d-man and paring him with Esa Lindell. The Stars, however, lacked offense this past season, recording 2.55 goals per game — 3rd worst in the NHL. Zaitsev could help the Stars with regaining some offensive production, as the Stars D-core (apart from Heiskanen and Klingberg) aren’t the best puck movers. The Zaitsev contract is also cost controllable for a team like the Stars, who will go into the offseason with around $16.5M in cap space.         

JESSE PULJUJARVI (Edm) to the COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has proven that he’s got some brass balls when it comes to making trades. The players he acquired at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline bailed him out by barely making the postseason and then SWEEPING the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Kekalainen is going to have a busy June and July in central Ohio, with plenty of UFAs and RFAs needing new deals. It’s inevitable that Columbus is going to lose one of their marquee players, so one trade that I could  see happening this summer is Jesse Puljujarvi, the 4th overall pick in 2016, to
Columbus for one of their Top 4 D-men (most likely David Savard or Ryan Murray) and a draft choice. Edmonton’s need for an actual defenseman not named Oscar Klefbom is paramount. Evan Bouchard is coming but he’s not ready yet, so finding a  No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman for the time being could be crucial for the Ken Holland run  Oilers to make a return the playoffs. Puljujarvi desperately needs out of Edmonton and going to an emerging hockey town in Columbus may be a good thing for the Finnish youngster. Columbus would be a great new start for Puljujarvi, with a Top-9 role all but guaranteed. 

RFAs

MITCH MARNER, RW, 22, TOR

Mitch Marner is a special hockey player. I’m a diehard fan of a division rival and even I own a Mitch Marner jersey (a London Knights jersey: don’t worry Bruins fans, I’m not that much of a sicko). Marner was the Maple Leafs best player this past season, leading the team in scoring with 26 goals and 68 assists for 94 points. He is undoubtedly a better overall player than Auston Matthews, Toronto’s highest paid player based on AAV next season ($11.634M). Marner is 100% getting $11.634M or higher, and he 100% deserves to be one of the highest paid players in the league. 

Mike’s Guess: 8yrs/$97.25M ($12.15M AAV)

MIKKO RANTANEN, RW, 22, COL

The young Finn was part of one of the highest producing lines in all of hockey this past season. The Rantanen-MacKinnon-Landeskog trio dominated the league in the first half of the season, and they to dominate all season carrying the Avalanche to the postseason. No. 96 has notched back-to-back point-per-game seasons, and in 2018-19, surpassing the 30 goal plateau for the first time. The Nousiainen, Finland native has emerged as a deadly power forward/sniper hybrid, and he’s going to be paid like it.

Mike’s Guess: 7yrs/$72.31M ($10.33 AAV)

BRAYDEN POINT, C, 23, TB

I have the privilege of attending the University of Tampa, so I’ve watched an unhealthy amount of the most overhyped team in the sport of hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa’s success is credited to one man, Steve Yzerman. When agents and players sat down across from “Stevie Y” they have all trembled and took less money to stay with this team. Yzerman is gone. Julien BriseBois, the new general manager is now encountering his first major hurdle, signing the 23-year-old 40-goal scorer. Point was the Lightning’s second best player (behind Nikita Kucherov), recording 92 points this season. I think Point will get similar money to Leon Draisaitl (8yrs/$68M — $8.5M AAV), coming at the cost of Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, or Ondrej Palat.

Mike’s Guess: 7yrs/$57.75M ($8.25M AAV)

PATRIK LAINE, RW, 21, WPG

The third Finnish player on the RFA list is the 2016 2nd overall draft pick. Patrik Laine broke into the league and almost won the “Rocket” Richard Trophy in 2017-18. I’m a huge Laine fanboy, but in all honesty, besides his elite offensive ability, his defensive skills aren’t the greatest for an NHL player. The Winnipeg Jets are not going to pay him to be the RW version of Patrice Bergeron though; Kevin Cheveldayoff, team GM, is going to pay him to be the reincarnation of Teemu Selanne, the best Finnish player of all time. Laine’s release his lightning quick and he could fit the puck in the smallest of windows, but a 14 goal drop-off from his career high of 44 goals in 2017-18 may see his contract value dip somewhat.

Mike’s Guess: 8yrs/$76M ($9.5M AAV)

CHARLIE MCAVOY, D, 21, BOS

Charlie McAvoy is a stud. Hindsight is 20/20, but in this case, it’s 73 in black and gold; boy it’s going to stay that way for a LONG time. How he fell to 14th overall, I don’t know. He’s a future No. 1 defenseman in the NHL and maybe (hopefully) a Norris Trophy winner. He averages just over 23 minutes in TOI and he was a horse in the Bruins playoff run in 2019 (apart from his 1 game suspension). McAvoy’s offensive game is starting to come around, 32 points (7 G-25 A) in 2017-18 and 28 points (7 G-21 A) in 2018-19. However, McAvoy has missed significant time in both of those seasons due to injury. Out of a possible 164 regular season games, McAvoy has played in only 117 of them. Don Sweeney could sign McAvoy to shorter bridge deal in order to win now with your current core, but I don’t think that’s what will be done. McAvoy is most likely going to want a long term deal. This holdout may last a while. 

Mike’s guess: 6yrs/$45M ($7.5M AAV)

UFAs

ERIK KARLSSON, D, 29: 2018-19 cap hit: $6,500,000

Imagine a world where Eugene Melnyk wasn’t a cheap bastard. In that world, he would’ve ponied up an 8yr/$100M extension for the greatest player the Ottawa Senators franchise has ever seen. That world does not exist. The Senators front office traded Erik Karlsson for some okay depth pieces, some maybe prospects, and a whole lot of mystery-box draft picks. Erik Karlsson had a good, but injury-filled, regular season, recording 3 goals and 42 assists for 45 points in 53 games. Averaging just under 0.85 points per game for Erik Karlsson is good, considering in his last three seasons, he’s recorded 0.88, 0.92, and 1.00 points per game. The Landsbro, Sweden native is going to make his extra million or two on his outstanding performance in the Sharks deep playoff run. Through 14 games, EK65 has recorded 12 assists, the key “apple” coming in that wild OT Game 7 against Vegas. Karlsson won’t resign with San Jose instantly; he’s going to field offers from any team. Andy Strickland reported on August 23, 2018, Erik Karlsson does not want to sign an extension with a Canadian team, making this process slightly more agonizing. To be honest, I don’t think Erik himself knows where he’s going, but recent reports are saying that Karlsson is open to a contract offer from Montreal or Ottawa 

Mike’s guess: Karlsson stays in San Jose

I’m going to get this off my chest: Erik Karlsson going back to Ottawa would be the biggest “F.U.” in the NHL since Lindros at the 1991 draft. However, I still think it’s unlikely as the Senators are considered a “budget team” and not a “cap team,” making a large contract more difficult to construct. The Sharks are not a budget team, and GM Doug Wilson should be slightly worried about the cap trouble coming his way. He has a lot of pieces to resign: Pavelski, Thornton, Nyquist, and Donskoi (all of whom are UFAs), as well as Meier and Labanc, RFAs come July 1. Pavelski, 34, may not be resigned after playing a 2nd Line C role to Logan Couture. Joe Thornton will most likely retire after turning 40-years-old on July 2nd, and Gustav Nyquist was a rental player to try and win Jumbo Joe his first Cup. Meier and Labanc are going to be resigned 100%. If Doug Wilson is smart, he will try to leave himself just over $12M in cap space to resign Erik Karlsson. The two teams have seemed to get along quite nicely in one year, and EK65 may just be waiting until July 1 just in case some sucker GM throws $13M per year at him.

ARTEMI PANARIN, LW, 27: 2018-19 cap hit: $6,000,000

Panarin is an offensive monster. The 27-year-old Russian makes goal scoring look so easy at times. He led the Blue Jackets in points (87) and assists (59) in the regular season, and points (11), goals (5), and assists (6) in the playoffs. He was by far the most valuable Blue Jackets player this season. Panarin and Columbus have seemed destined for a split since he was traded there in June 2017. The then 24-year-old recorded 31 goals and 43 assists for 74 points with Chicago. Many thought his elevated point total existed solely because of Patrick Kane. The Korkino, Russia native responded to his skeptics, myself included, by recording back-to-back point-per-game seasons with CBJ. Panarin came out early on in the season saying he and his girlfriend desired the big city life, rather than a college town like Columbus. If Panarin does follow through on his wishes and goes to the big city, Columbus will be dealt a massive blow to its forward core. However, Panarin leaving Ohio would open up opportunities for Sonny Milano, Alexandre Texier, or someone else (see above) to step in and fill a Top 6 role.

Mike’s guess: Panarin to the New York Rangers

Panarin and New York Rangers look like a match made in heaven. The Rangers during the past two seasons have torn down the team, apart from their goaltending. GM Jeff Gorton made a boatload of large and small trades at the past two deadlines. In 2018, he packaged D Ryan McDonagh and LW J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay for LW Vladislav Namestnikov, C Brett Howden, D Libor Hajek, a 2018 1st RD draft pick (used to take Swedish D Nils Lundkvist) and 2019 2nd RD draft pick. This past deadline, Gorton dealt fan-favorite Mats Zuccarello to Dallas 2019 conditional 2nd RD pick, and a 2020 conditional 3rd RD pick. Along with other minor trades made at this past season’s deadline, the Rangers have positioned themselves to be really, really dangerous in the next few years. Their prospect-pool includes No. 1 rated prospect (according to Craig Button at TSN) Vitali Kravtsov, defenseman K’Andre Miller and Adam Fox (No. 12), and goalie Igor Shesterkin (No. 10). Combine that with the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Rangers could solidify their Top 6 with a winger like Panarin, if they are willing to pay the price tag.      

SERGEI BOBROVSKY, G, 30: 2018-19 cap hit: $7,425,000

I remember when the Philadelphia Flyers signed the young Russian goalie in 2011 to back-up Brian Boucher. Boucher sucked against the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs that year, so they turned to “Bob” in relief. He made a few nice saves but he was very inexperienced. He backed-up hockey legend Ilya Bryzgalov the next season, and in his three seasons with the Flyers, the then 23-year-old recorded a 2.73 GAA and a .909 Save% while having a record of 42-23-10. He was traded right before the 2012 NHL Entry draft for 2012 2nd and 4th RD picks and a 2013 4th RD pick. He played 7 seasons in Columbus, recording five 30+ win seasons and winning the Vezina Trophy twice (2013 and 2017). He, along with fellow Russian Artemi Panarin, was the key to the Blue Jackets sweep of the Lightning this past postseason. His 2.41 GAA and .925 Save% in 10 games this postseason were very solid but weren’t enough in the end. “Bob” has been in hot water in Columbus. His career playoff record isn’t the best. He has the ability to steal you a game or two but I feel like Sergei would benefit from playing behind a more defensively minded team. He’s Columbus’ version of Tuukka Rask; he makes the incredible save now and then, but come crunch time, his play seems to dip slightly. 

Mike’s guess: Bobrovsky to Chicago

I really couldn’t figure out a certain landing spot for Bobrovsky, so I took a lot around Capfriendly.com to see who could use a goalie. I decided on the Blackhawks. “But wait Mike, don’t the Blackhawks already have Corey Crawford?” Yes, they do; at one of the worst goalie contracts in the league. Luckily he only has one year left on his $6M per year cap hit. Crawford had a good run in Chicago but I think it’s time for Stan Bowman to move on from the 34-year-old Canadian. Injuries, and some nasty ones too, have really hampered the Blackhawks the past few seasons. Buying out
Crawford’s contract would save Chicago about $2.5M in cap space for next season and $1.5M year after. If they weren’t to buyout Crawford, Bowman would have about $18.5M in cap, and a new franchise goalie may accelerate their retool slightly.     

MATT DUCHENE, C, 28: 2018-19 cap hit, $6,000,000
When Nathan MacKinnon was drafted 1st overall in 2013, you could see the beginnings of tension between Colorado Avalanche upper management and Matt Duchene. The former 3rd overall selection in 2009 has always desired to play in the playoffs consistently. During his time in Denver, Colorado qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice. His name was constantly being thrown around in trade talks since 2016, until he was finally dealt to Ottawa in October 2017. Many people thought this was a home run. I didn’t; the sum Dorion gave up for Duchene was LUDACRIS (the price for Duchene should’ve been the return for Erik Karlsson). The trade blew up in Ottawa’s face. Duchene was dealt again to Columbus at the 2019 deadline. Many people won’t recognize it at first glance, but Duchene tied his best statistical season in the NHL (31 goals and 39 assists for 70 points). He was a key deadline acquisition by Jarmo Kekalainen, notching 5 goals and 5 assists in ten postseason games.

Mike’s guess: Duchene stays in Columbus

Duchene really seemed to enjoy playing in the emerging hockey hotbed this April and early May. The only thing that is holding back an extension on Duchene is the conditions of the trade. On February 22, 2019, Columbus sent LW Vitaly Abramov, RW Jonathan Davidsson, and two conditional 1st RD draft picks to Ottawa for Matt Duchene and D Julius Bergman. The conditions on the picks are, “if Duchene re-signs with the Blue Jackets, Ottawa will receive Columbus’ 2020 1st round pick. If the 2019 pick moves to 2020 as a result of the lottery and Duchene signs with Columbus, the 2020 conditional pick would then move to 2021).” Kekalainen will be extremely cautious when Negotiating with Duchene during the re-sign phase, but ultimately, an extra first-round pick (which should be a mid to late 1st rounder) is a decent price for a versatile player like Duchene.

JAKE GARDINER, D, 28: 2018-19 cap hit: $4,050,000

The University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, 17th overall. He never played a game in southern California however. Gardiner, along with Joffrey Lupul and a 2013 conditional 4th RD pick was sent to Toronto for defenseman Francois Beauchemin. Since that trade, Gardiner has played seven full seasons with the Maple Leafs recording 245 points (45 goals, 200 assists) in 551 career games. His career high in goals (10) came in 2013-14, assists (47) in 2017-18, and points (52) in 2017-18. Gardiner has great offensive instincts, speed, and stick-handling. His play in his defensive zone is not very sound, however. Gardiner’s most notable defensive headline is a -5 rating in TOR-BOS 2018: Game 7. Gardiner was awful in the game, and he was awful in TOR-BOS 2019: Game 7, too. Gardiner made an awful reverse play behind his own net, leading to Marcus Johansson’s 1st-period goal. If Gardiner wants a decent payday, it’s going to be from a team needing production from the blueline.

Mike’s guess: Gardiner to the Montreal Canadiens  

A lot of people, especially fans of Atlantic Division teams, believed the “Bleu, Blanc et Rouge” were going to be awful this season. Marc Bergevin, in the past two years, has traded Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin, Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi, and Max Pacioretty for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki, and a 2nd RD pick. I had mixed reactions about all of these deals. I understood the Drouin trade; the team was starved for scoring wingers and Drouin did not like playing for Tampa. The coaching staff completely screwed up Galchenyuk’s development by not playing him at center, and Max Pacioretty quickly fell out of favor in Montreal after being named the captain. Montreal managed to be a playoff contender this season on the back on Carey Price and Max Domi. The Habs left-handed blue line production hurt them. Jeff Petry led all Montreal defensemen this past season with 46 points (13 G, 33 A) and Shea Weber had 14 goals and 19 assists in 53 games. Both are right-handed defensemen. Montreal’s depth on the left side is poor. Jordie Benn (UFA), Victor Mete, and Brett Kulak (RFA) combined for 52 points this season, on par with Jake Gardiner’s career high. With Jordie Benn most likely leaving, Bergevin could go bold and add the former Leaf to improve the blueline. A Jake Gardiner-Shea Weber pairing could see Gardiner thrive, with most of the heavy lifting in the D-zone being done by Weber. The Habs would also gain experience and more scoring depth with the addition of Gardiner’s services.     


Photo: NHL News

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